Posts Tagged ‘Lebanon’

‘Qatar, Playing All Sides, Is a Nonstop Mediator’

July 9, 2008

Qatar’s Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani in Lebanon for crisis talks

(The New York Times) — “In the past month, after Qatari diplomats brokered a landmark peace deal for Lebanon in talks here, this tiny emirate on the Persian Gulf has enjoyed a brief moment of giddy celebrity. Editorialists praised the Qatari emir as a modern-day Metternich. Huge billboards went up on the road to the Beirut airport, proclaiming, “We all say: Thank you Qatar.” An ice cream shop in downtown Beirut put out a sign offering a Doha Agreement Cone. But the Qataris did not linger over their diplomatic triumph. They were too busy trying to solve every other conflict in the Middle East…” Click for full article

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Context of the Lebanese Crisis

May 16, 2008

[Taking a stroll in downtown Beirut]

American media never pro-actively follow political developments in places like Lebanon, nor sufficiently explain the deeper issues even when crises breaks out. That is why Americans are left scratching their heads when violence erupts so suddenly and unexpectedly. And that is why I turn to British media. No gasket ever blows without simmering pressure, and there’s been a lot of that in Lebanon. For a very in-depth explanation of the situation in Lebanon, The Economist has a great article. Also see Patrick Seale’s quite informative piece, Lebanon Steps Back from the Brink of War.

Probably the most significant lasting fallout from the previous week’s events surrounds Hizbullah crossing the Rubicon by using its arms for internal Lebanese political machinations, which the militant group had previously vowed never to do. That, and the pro-Western Lebanese government may fall. The argument that their weapons are reserved only for use against Israel is now totally undermined. Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah demonstrated in both words and actions last week that, “We no longer have red lines.”

Writing for the Daily Star, Rami Khouri believes the reconciliation talks going in Doha may lead to short term or even long term peace and quiet in Lebanon, but not before a new power sharing formula is devised, or before the country goes through some major soul searching about its place among the regional and global power rivalries.

It’s often said that Middle Easterners have long memories (there are people in my field who would call that an Orientalist cliche but I believe it’s true). So do Lebanese who remember the civil war years (1975-1990) really want to go down that road again? Did they forget it wasn’t pleasant? Ask Robert Fisk for his opinion on that

‘Israel, U.S. plan to release details on Syria attack’

April 6, 2008

So we finally get to know who was right and who was wrong after all the speculation surrounding just what Israel attacked in Syria last September, and why. Assuming they tell us the truth, that is. It’s interesting that the announcement comes just as tensions are heating up on the northern border. The timing may be deliberate, as a reminder and a warning to Syria and Lebanon (particularly Hizbullah, whose response to Imad Mughniyah’s assassination we still await) that Israel can strike anywhere in their respective countries, anytime.

(Haaretz –) “Israel and the United States are coordinating the release of details on the air force strike in Syria last September, which foreign reports claim targeted a nuclear installation Syria was constructing with North Korean assistance. American officials may reveal details of the strike later this month during congressional hearings. Even though the defense establishment in Israel is opposed to any publication of details of the attack, the Prime Minister’s Bureau and U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration are of the opinion that it is now possible to reveal details because there is little chance of a conflagration as a result of a Syrian decision to avenge the attack…”

Lebanon to boycott Arab Summit in Syria

March 25, 2008

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(Arab League secretary general Amr Moussa)

(Bloomberg) — “Lebanese officials will boycott an Arab League summit in Syria this month to protest a political deadlock that has left Lebanon without a president since November, a senior aide to the premier said..” Click here for full article

FT: ‘Iraqi Christians opt for Lebanon’

January 21, 2008

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(Christians in the Northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, an increasingly infrequent sight)

Interesting article from the Financial Times about Iraqi Christian refugees resettling in Lebanon in relatively large numbers. Despite Lebanon’s terrible track record of refugee treatment, the dwindling Iraqi Christian population is attracted to Lebanon for it’s reputation as a partly-Christian ruled country in an otherwise Muslim dominated region, and because job opportunities are much easier to come across in Lebanon than in neighboring Syria. The number of Christian refugees flowing into Lebanon doesn’t appear large enough to upset the country’s delicate sectarian balance. Although the proportion of Iraqi Christians to the total Iraqi population was never large, it appears that if anything, more of a lasting mark will be left on Iraq, the source of the refugees, where in spite of a recent upturn in the number of returning refugees, few Iraqi Christians plan ever to return.

(Financial Times) — The UNHCR has registered some 10,000 of the estimated 50,000 Iraqis in Lebanon but the government does not recognise their refugee status. Lebanese officials say Iraqis are treated no differently than other illegal immigrants who evade the country’s tough entry conditions. Lebanon’s fractured sectarian landscape and the presence of some 350,000 Palestinian refugees makes the country reluctant to absorb more foreigners. As with the Iraqis, the legal status of the Palestinians in Lebanon is among the worst in the region. Fearing that their presence will upset the sectarian balance, Lebanon has denied Palestinians work opportunities and a chance to integrate for decades. In spite of the intimidating atmosphere, Iraq’s Christian community has been heading for Lebanon in relatively large numbers. Lebanon’s reputation as a partly Christian-ruled country in a Muslim-dominated region has been part of the lure… Click for full article.

Christmas in Lebanon 2007: Head of state tops country’s Christmas wish list

December 20, 2007

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One Lebanese President, and a partridge in a pear tree…

Head of state leads Lebanon’s Christmas list
By Ferry Biedermann in Beirut

(Financial Times ) —What most Lebanese people want for Christmas is a president,” jokes a comedian dressed up as Santa Claus on the stage of an upmarket nightclub in a Christian suburb of Beirut. It is comedy night and the country’s convoluted political deadlock is an easy target for the performers. The audience seems to be grateful for every bit of comic relief. “We need to laugh because the situation is so tense,” says Antoine Geagea, who shares a last name with a leading Christian politician. The show must go on, even after the killing last week of François el-Hajj, a senior army general. “The bigger the mess, the more they need us,” says Fadi Riady, one of the comics. Lebanon’s parliament on Monday again postponed a vote on a new president, leaving the country without a head of state for more than three weeks. The new date is Saturday but after nine postponements few still believe the question will be settled this year...” Click for full article

Hashish Thrives Amid Lebanon’s Instability

October 16, 2007

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This is an interesting article about Lebanese marijuana cultivation as it relates to the country’s political climate. It’s also a prime example (strangely giving you faith in humanity) that no matter how badly things deteriorate, there’s always someone who figures out how to make a bunch of money off of it. I remember reading that during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), or the “golden years” of Lebanon’s marijuana cultivation as this article refers to it with terrible irony, occasionally young Israeli soldiers occupying the country couldn’t resist buying stashes for themselves, and would even trade weapons for it. The way things are going in Lebanon there could be a real future for marijuana farmers…

(Christian Science Monitor) — Farmers in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley are growing more marijuana now that government forces are once again too busy with conflicts to stop them.

By Nicholas Blanford

Bekaa Valley, Lebanon

Ali plucks a sprig of the cannabis sativa plant and sniffs its distinctive leaves with appreciation. This Lebanese farmer’s field of marijuana, a splash of bright green on the sun-baked plains of eastern Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, will yield around 15 kilograms (33 pounds) of cannabis resin, or hashish, which he will sell for about $10,000, many times more than he could hope to earn from legitimate crops and for almost no work at all.

“All I have to do is throw the seeds on the ground, add a little water, and that’s it,” says Ali, who spoke on the condition that his full name was not used. “I would be crazy not to grow [marijuana].”

It has been a bumper year for marijuana cultivation in the Bekaa Valley, the largest, growers say, since the “golden years” of Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, when marijuana and heroin grown and processed here flooded the markets of Europe and the United States.

Hashish production is illegal in Lebanon, and each year since the early 1990s police backed by troops bulldoze the crops before they can be harvested, leaving farmers penniless. But the failure of United Nations and government programs to encourage the growth of legitimate crops, coupled with months of political crisis, deteriorating economic prospects, and a frail security climate have encouraged farmers to return to large-scale marijuana cultivation.

“The worse the security situation is in Lebanon, the more we can grow,” says Ali.

Worth the risk, farmers say

Despite the threat of police raids destroying their crops, farmers say the financial returns justify the risk. This year they were lucky, however. The Army was unable to spare troops to provide security for the police raids because of the raging battle during the summer growing season against Islamist militants in a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon. Furthermore, the heavily armed local farmers made it clear to the police that they would resist attempts to wipe out their marijuana crops.

“We told the police that for every [marijuana] plant they cut down, we would kill one policeman,” says Ibtissam, the wife of a marijuana farmer in the village of Taraya.

Cannabis cultivation has a long history in Lebanon. For centuries, farmers have grown marijuana in the fertile Bekaa. However, it was not until Lebanon’s civil war that marijuana and opium poppy growing really took off. By the end of the 1980s, the northern Bekaa was awash with both crops, generating an annual local economy worth $500 million, a massive sum for one of the poorest districts of the country, turning local farmers into multimillionaire drug barons.

The biggest of them all was Jamil Hamieh, a simple farmer from Taraya who built a fortune from cannabis and heroin production, cutting deals with Colombian drug lords and mafia dons and earning him the dubious distinction of being the only Lebanese on the US government’s list of leading international drug “kingpins.”

Now retired from active drug production, Hamieh lives in an air-conditioned tent where he hosts visitors with tiny cups of bitter coffee.

“It wasn’t the government that made me stop. I was tired of being ripped off by all the foreigners I was dealing with,” he says with a rueful chuckle.

With the end of the civil war in 1990, the Lebanese government launched a drug eradication program in coordination with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Encouraged by promises of state support and international funding, the farmers stopped growing cannabis and by 1994 the UNDP declared the Bekaa drug free.

But the development funds never fully materialized. Of the $300 million the UNDP assessed was required to develop the Bekaa without resorting to drug cultivation, only $17 million was received by 2001.

The program fizzled out a year later, although the UNDP continues to seek new ways of persuading farmers to grow alternative legal crops, such as plants with medicinal qualities that can be sold to pharmaceutical companies. The UNDP is about to launch a one-year pilot project to grow industrial hemp, which comes from cannabis but does not have narcotic properties.

“The farmers can sell the fibers to make money. We have had a lot of interest from factories overseas,” says Edgar Chehab, the head of the UNDP’s energy and environment division in Lebanon.

The northern part of the Bekaa Valley – where the bulk of the marijuana is grown – is dominated by Lebanon’s militant Shiite Hizbullah party. Hizbullah officially disapproves of drug production, but it has chosen to turn a blind eye to the practice rather than risk a confrontation over the issue with its grass-roots supporters.

Indeed, Hizbullah in the past has co-opted cross-border drug smuggling networks between Lebanon and Israel, allowing narcotics to flow south into the Jewish state in exchange for intelligence gathered by Israeli drug dealers.

Will local drug use increase?

The promise of easy money dampens any moral misgivings farmers may have about producing cannabis and hard drugs. But some expressed uneasiness that the difficulties in smuggling drugs out of the country will mean that most of the cannabis will end up being sold in the local market which could increase domestic drug dependency.

“All the borders are in lockdown so we have to sell it in the Lebanese market as cannabis only has a two-year life,” says Ahmad, a former marijuana farmer and heroin refiner.

Brigitte Khoury, a clinical psychologist and professor at the American University of Beirut, says that domestic drug use rises with the rates of production within Lebanon. “I am sure that if the marijuana planting increases there will be a corresponding increase in domestic drug use,” Ms. Khoury says.

Totally Bogus: Walt and Mearsheimer Relate U.S. Support of Israel to 9/11

October 11, 2007

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These guys must be totally naive or worse. The strong causal link they create between U.S. support for Israel and the 9/11 attacks is downright dishonest, echoing Arab propaganda at its worst and dubious far left conspiracy theories. The truth is of course, The United States’ own conduct has been primarily responsible for anti-American sentiment in the region and beyond, far more than its support for Israel. I don’t know why its so hard to for Walt and Mearsheimer to see that. There is no doubt Bin Laden sympathizes with the Palestinian side in the conflict (along with his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri who holds some grievances over the Palestinian issue) and wants the Jews out of Jerusalem due to the city’s status in Islam as the 3rd holiest site after Mecca and Medina, but it was never his cause, nor was it the cause of Al Qaeda. He didn’t spend his millions funding Palestinian militant groups over the years.

His war was against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s and later against the Saudi government (and the U.S. by extension) for the unforgivable act of betrayal in which U.S. troops were allowed to station themselves in the Saudi Kingdom (on Muslim holy land as he saw it) during the first Gulf War and after. Bin Laden had no qualms with accepting money and training from the CIA during the Afghan Jihad (according to Middle East analyst Hazhir Teimourian, though it’s disputed by some, nonetheless it was clear to everybody the U.S. was at least indirectly behind training and support for the effort) at a time when the U.S. was supporting Israel, then as now. And during those early years of the Afghan Jihad Israel was busy attacking and driving the PLO out of Lebanon with weapons including American-made weapons. When Bin Laden panders to the Palestinian cause in his speeches, Walt and Mearsheimer should have the capacity to differentiate between truth and propaganda. The references to Jerusalem and the Palestinians serve as a rallying point for gaining broad Arab/Muslim support.

Even Yasser Arafat spoke out about this in 2002 in an interview with London’s Sunday Times newspaper, accusing Bin Laden of exploiting the Palestinian issue when it was never his cause. Thus he said, Why is Bin Laden talking about Palestine now? Bin Laden never, not ever, stressed this issue. He never helped us. He was working in a completely different area and against our interests… I am telling him directly not to hide behind the Palestinian cause.

‘US support for Israel spurred 9/11’ (Jerusalem Post)

US support for Israel was a “major cause” of the 9-11 attacks, according to University of Chicago Professor John Mearsheimer and Harvard Professor Stephen Walt, who appeared at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology last week to promote their book The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy.

“A critically important issue when talking about America’s terrorism problem is the matter of how US support for Israel’s brutal treatment of the Palestinians relates to what happened on September 11,” said Mearsheimer, who played the role of attack dog, while Walt set the stage.

Mearsheimer suggested that the notion of payback for injustices suffered by the Palestinians is perhaps the “most powerfully recurrent in [Osama] Bin Laden’s speeches,” who, he said, had been deeply concerned about the plight of the Palestinians since he was a young man. He said that Bin Laden’s concern had been reflected in his public statements throughout the 1990’s – “well before 9-11.” Citing the 9-11 Commission report, Mearsheimer and Walt argued that Bin Laden wanted to make sure the attackers struck Congress because it is “the most important source of support for Israel in the United States,” adding that Bin Laden twice tried to move up the dates of the attacks because of events involving Israel. Mearsheimer and Walt went on to argue that 9-11 architect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s animus toward the United States stemmed not from his experiences in the United States as a student, but rather from his violent disagreement with US foreign policy favoring Israel. “Its hard to imagine more compelling evidence of the role US support for Israel played in the 9-11 attacks,” said Mearsheimer

Lebanon: A Middle East Microcosm

October 3, 2007

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This is an important article. Elie Podeh, the head of the Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, discusses Lebanon’s current role as a battleground for regional and international political/sectarian/ideological struggles, and compares it with the country’s role in those of the past. In it’s modern history, Lebanon has suffered greatly from this unfortunate role.

The late Malcolm Kerr, (the former President of the American University of Beirut who was murdered in 1984 during the first Lebanon War by gunmen claiming to be from Islamic Jihad) wrote the classic book The Arab Cold War, from which no student of Middle Eastern Studies can escape (well I can name a few). The book describes the war between former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and his rivals, which dominated Arab regional politics in the 1950s and 1960s and was more generally a reflection of the conflict between so called radical socialist regimes and the conservative monarchies.

If there is a new Arab Cold War, it would reflect the growing Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian divide within the Muslim and Arab world, and other lesser conflicts, both regional and international, that are once again being played out in Lebanon. Read for yourself:

A Middle Eastern microcosm (Haaretz)
By Elie Podeh

Lebanon, like Israel, prefers to put off the really important questions until “after the holidays.” The Lebanese Parliament, which convened – though not at its full strength – on September 25, has decided to postpone the question of electing a president until its October 23 session, after the month of Ramadan and the Id al-Fitr holiday. This affords more time to strike a deal on a candidate.

The Lebanese presidential elections are ostensibly an internal matter, but in fact, 20th- and 21st-century Lebanese history has been tied to the history of the world, particularly the Arab world. The domestic political crises in Lebanon have, at least in part, stemmed from outside involvement, and therefore Lebanon has been and remains a microcosm of the region’s problems.

The civil war that erupted in 1958 was a result of an internal struggle over extending the Maronite Christian president Camille Chamoun’s term, but also stemmed from Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabist influence. The Sunnis, who were ideologically and politically close to Nasser, supported joining a Syrian-Egyptian union, while the Christians opposed the move, which was liable to harm their dominance in Lebanon. The West supported the Christians, and United States marines were sent in to protect Lebanon in the wake of the July 1958 revolution in Iraq, which was perceived in the West as Pro-Soviet.

Both the Cold War and the struggle between the two Lebanese factions were manifested in the Civil War. Although Chamoun’s term was not extended and Fouad Shihab was elected as his successor, the danger of Communism and “assimilation” into the Sunni Arab world were pushed off.

Another example of this microcosm is the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war. This war stemmed from a political expression of the Muslims’ growing proportion of the population, as this group demanded a change to the National Pact of 1943 that would grant them more political clout. However, beyond this internal issue, the civil war also reflected a number of major Arab issues. The first was Syria’s regard for Lebanon as an arena of influence within the inter-Arab struggle, manifested by the Syrian force that entered Lebanon and remained there through April 2005. The second was the struggle between Egypt and Saudi Arabia for regional hegemony, as seen in their diplomatic intervention to end the war. The third was the strengthening of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanon, after its defeat in Jordan during the events of Black September in 1970. This focused the Israeli-Arab conflict on the Palestinian issue and led to the first Lebanon war in 1982. Finally, there was the beginning of Iranian involvement to help the oppressed Shi’ites.

The Arab involvement led to the end of the civil war with the 1989 signing of the Taif agreement. This agreement introduced several changes to the National Pact, but did not solve the Syrian problem or the question of dismantling militias fighting Israel, such as Hezbollah.

War, take two

During the Second Lebanon War last summer, Lebanon again became a microcosm of regional conflicts. Although the war was conducted as a bilateral fight between Israel and Hezbollah (and not the Lebanese government), it actually reflected several broader conflicts. First on the list was the conflict between the West and Iran. This conflict is being conducted around the nuclear issue, but Iran’s influence on Shi’ite communities plays a large role. Hezbollah is perceived as an Iranian proxy in the struggle for control of Lebanon and the Shi’ite world and as part of an “axis of evil” that includes al-Qaida, Hamas and Syria.

A second issue was the ideological Shi’ite-Sunni struggle within the Muslim and Arab world. The U.S. occupation of Iraq and the Shi’ites’ rise to power there adversely affected the intra-religious balance in the Arab world. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other Sunni Arab countries saw the war through the prism of the Shi’ite-Sunni struggle, and therefore it is not surprising that they secretly sided with Israel. Within Lebanon, too, the anti-Syrian March 14 Alliance – the civic alliance, also known as the Cedar Revolution, that arose in the wake of former prime minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination in 2005 – consists mostly of Sunnis and Druze, who fear the strengthening of the country’s Shi’ites. The fact that the war did not end with a clear outcome means these parties are preparing for the next round in the fight over the presidency.

Lebanon’s transformation into a focal point for regional rivalries has several historical reasons. First off, Lebanese society is composed of a mosaic of ethnic groups and religions. The traditional split between Christians (Maronites, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholics, Armenians and more) and Muslims (Shi’ites and Sunnis) – for a total of 18 official communities – does not always help in understanding the politics, which rests on alliances that cross community and religious lines. In this struggle, various groups have found allies outside of Lebanon – including France, the United States, Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia. With the rise of the Shi’ites in Lebanon since the 1980s, Iran has become a major factor in the Lebanese political and military arena.

As a result of the Lebanese state’s weakness, various external elements have found themselves compelled to intervene in internal matters in order to maintain the balance among the communities. The PLO, Syria and Israel have become the major players in the Lebanese arena, because of their geographical proximity and their national interests. However, more distant factors, such as Iran and the Western powers, also have found allies that serve their interests. The weakness of the state stems from the weakness of its institutions – especially the army, which has also been split among the various communities, leading to the establishment of sectarian militias. It is no wonder, then, that the strengthening of the army in recent years also presages a strengthening of the state.

The current struggle for the Lebanese presidency is being conducted between the players in the Second Lebanon War, minus Israel. To a large extent, this is a more intensive and impassioned fight than the one over President Emile Lahoud’s term – which finally was extended in the wake of Syrian pressure and a 2004 constitutional amendment. There is no doubt that the next president – if one is indeed elected and a political vacuum is not created – will be a Maronite Christian, in accordance with the recognized rules of the game. However, Syria and Iran are interested in seeing former army commander Michel Aoun elected. Aoun, who returned about a year ago from a long exile in Paris, surprisingly has linked up with Hezbollah. Through Aoun and his allies, Syria is hoping to continue to influence the decision-making process in Beirut, after having been compelled to retreat shamefacedly in the wake of the anti-Syrian Cedar Revolution in May 2005.

The Shi’ite challenge

The influence of Syria in Lebanon could serve the former by canceling or postponing the work of the international commission investigating Hariri’s assassination. In parallel, Hezbollah – supported by Iran – is interested in strengthening its political hold in order to reap dividends from the Shi’ite population growth and the Second Lebanon War. This camp rests on a Lebanese political coalition that links Christians and Muslims (mostly Shi’ite Hezbollah supporters), who are expecting to benefit from the unholy alliance between Iran and Syria.

On the other side is a large camp that includes the U.S., Europe (mainly France and Italy) and Sunni Arab countries, mainly Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and is concerned about the strengthening of Iran and Syria. Members of this camp fear the growth of Shi’ite strength in Lebanon and, as a result, throughout the Arab world, which would bolster Iran’s status in the Middle East. This camp also is interested in isolating Syria and in weakening its influence in Beirut, which would return Lebanon to the path of rehabilitation it left after Hariri’s assassination.

This approach relies on Lebanese forces that have come quite a way since the Beirut spring, including the March 14 Alliance and other Christian, Sunni and Druze elements. The most important change in this group has been its partnership with Sunnis, mainly in the wake of Hariri’s assassination, which led many to forgo the delusion of the Sunni Arab solution (Syria) in favor of full Lebanese independence. The latest assassinations in Lebanon, which apparently were carried out by Syria or its emissaries, targeted individuals associated with this camp, and were aimed at weakening the bloc that seeking an independent president, in order to prevent the completion of the process of regaining independence.

Given that Lebanon constitutes a microcosm of regional processes, it is tempting to see the presidential elections as a struggle for the future of the Middle East. This conclusion may be too strong, because walking on the threshhold and compromises are the name of the game in Lebanese politics. The elections undoubtedly constitute an important juncture that will determine whether Lebanon is headed for rehabilitation and whether patriotism will be strengthened, at the expense of sectarianism. The Lebanese press also sees the elections as a crossroad, and is emphasizing that this is the time to prove the country is capable of determining its own fate. By November 24, the last date by which the Parliament can elect the president – we will know the answer.

Israel, naturally, is following what is happening in Lebanon with concern. Its interests place it, of course, with the Western and Sunni Arab countries. However, unlike them, Israel does not need to intervene in what is happening in Lebanon. It appears that the era of Syrian influence must end with the election of an independent Lebanese president; however, the strengthening of the Lebanese Shi’ites due to regional processes (Iraq) and the demographic increase indicate that this era has not yet ended. Given that the number of Christians is constantly decreasing – due to both emigration and a low birthrate – it appears that over the long term, Israel will have to deal with the Shi’ite challenge, with all the problems this entails.

The writer is a professor and head of the Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.